How civilized are we?

This morning I attended a birthday party for the child of some close friends, and the house overflowed with babies. I was in the middle of a cuteness epidemic, with child after child pulling at my heart strings. They were so innocent, so deserving of life.

As I looked around, I thought of the misguided people* — terrorists, members of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, and others — who develop plans to wreak horrible pain and death on those innocent children. How can people call themselves civilized and do such things? But, by the same token, how can we call ourselves civilized when we stand idly by while our own nation has plans for inflicting the same fate on children in Russia and all the other places our weapons might be used?

Many have argued that we have no choice — that Russia’s weapons or the terrorist threat forces us to behave as we do. While those threats must be taken into account in our planning, we are not the helpless victims of circumstance. Given our nation’s part in initiating the nuclear era and given the thousands of nuclear weapons in our arsenal, might it be appropriate for us to assume a starring role in reducing the risk to an acceptable level?

If more people will recognize the fundamental disconnect between relying on nuclear weapons and calling ourselves civilized, there will be a greater chance that those innocent children I saw this morning will have the chance they deserve to grow into adulthood and beyond.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

* Calling those people “misguided” is not a judgment. Many years ago, one of my jobs involved an effort to increase the effectiveness of our nuclear weapons. Back then I could not see better paths for enhancing our national security. I was misguided because the map available to me at that time did not include paths which, today, are clearly visible to me.

If you agree that we should not stand idly by in tacit acceptance of this unacceptable situation, please send a link to this post to friends who might be interested and encourage them to sign up for this blog’s RSS feed.

To better understand the problem and solution check out “Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons.” and our Frequently Asked Questions.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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